By John Barber
April 10, 2014 at 9:15 am
Toronto needs warriors to fight for cyclists, pedestrians, and the life of the city.
Whatever happened to the War on the Car? I miss it. And I struggle to accept the fact that one madman’s election has really put an end to that great cause. But when I sift through the current campaign material published by his would-be successors, I can barely detect even a whiff of the old fighting spirit.
The word “bicycle” would qualify in that respect. But the only candidate who so much as mentions that most controversial conveyance on his website is Richard Underhill, an accomplished jazz musician who is currently ruining his promising second career as a fringe candidate by taking it seriously. And even this recently de-bearded downtowner is soft-pedalling [sic] the cause, promising a Tory-esque compromise to build bike lanes “with minimal effect on parking or traffic flow.” The usual squared circle of political promiseland, in other words.
Olivia Chow’s website is garlanded with beauty shots, but not one shows her aboard the bicycle that was once her calling card—perhaps it was considered too provocative to Ford Nation and has been quietly rusticated. Her rivals are uniformly dedicated to keeping motorists happy. None of the four has had a word to say about protecting pedestrians or calming the city’s increasingly deadly traffic. The evidence so far says that when it comes to dealing with the critical issue of safe streets, Ford has them all cowed.
And the cars have not failed to press their advantage. In 2011, they managed to kill about 20 pedestrians and cyclists—and far more of the former than the latter. Last year, they killed twice as many. Altogether, there were more traffic fatalities than homicides in Toronto last year. And so far, there isn’t a single mayoral candidate who appears to have a problem with that.
That silence in the face of an obvious crisis is all the more remarkable when one considers what’s happening in the real world outside Ford Nation—most recently in New York, to pick a favourite comparator, where unabashed progressive Bill de Blasio won a landslide victory to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thanks in no small part to his bold plan to eliminate traffic fatalities in New York by 2020. Modelled on a Swedish initiative, de Blasio’s Vision Zero policy is the boldest fightback against the car any city on this continent has ever attempted.
Building on the impressive bike-lane and traffic-calming initiatives of the former mayor’s famous transportation czarina, Janette Sadik-Khan, the new policy puts New York streets far ahead of Toronto’s.
The most telling symbol of Toronto’s timidity is the ubiquitous “sharrow”—the not-quite bike lane denoted by pictures of bicycles with forward-pointing chevrons painted on the street. What does it even mean?
The question came to me abruptly one day from the mouth of a tourist in a car waiting at a light beside me on Spadina. “Does that mean I can’t drive there?” he asked, leaning across his front seat and pointing at the bicycle pictures in the lane ahead. The light was about to change, so I had to think quickly, and for a second the deep ambiguity of the sharrow confounded me. But just as suddenly, I realized the bare truth, which is all the tourist needed to know. “No, that means you can drive there,” I explained. “A picture of a bicycle on a lane in Toronto means, ‘Drive here.’”
He was happy for the explanation, leaving me to contemplate the absurdity of it.
I know how it happened. For years, the city was happy to paint bike lanes anywhere so long as they never displaced any parking or motor traffic. As soon as these lanes arrived at an intersection—or a row of parked cars or any number of other car-related disruptions—they disappeared. Toronto’s bizarrely discontinuous non-network of bike lanes lures cyclists into a protected zone only to throw them into the maelstrom. It was and remains embarrassing. Hence the inscrutable sharrow. Being useless if not dangerous to cyclists and meaningless to drivers, its sole purpose is to cover bureaucratic butt. It is the perfect symbol of a city where nobody wants to make a hard choice.
The hard lesson from New York and dozens of progressive European cities is that you can’t make gains for cyclists, pedestrians, and the life of the city as a whole without restricting car use—removing lanes, widening sidewalks, lowering speed limits, and redesigning intersections. And as JSK and others have proven, that is not a politics for wimps: we need warriors.
First and foremost if you are a motorist and reading this article, take its premise seriously. Keep in mind the last time we underestimated the ferocity of an idea and were surprised when we saw the Twin Towers come tumbling down. When someone uses the word “war” take them seriously.
What is even more important than the idea of “restricting car use” is the notion that you can maintain a vibrant Democracy with a Fascist approach to governance. We saw what that sort of thing did to the Blacks living in the Jim Crow South in this country. We have seen what it looks like when a nation as forward thinking as was Germany gets caught up in the Final Solution of a dictator.
I trust no one to rule as a “benign dictator“. If I saw a vegan rise to power in this country and he decided that eating meat what bad for Americans and simply removed it from the menus of our restaurants or priced it beyond the ability of individuals to pay for it without having to sell their children, I would be against him. There are no ideas which are of lasting value which are not embraced by those who see their value.
The island of Cuba has been ruled for decades by a band of folks who “knew what was best” for the people. Dictators like Fidel Castro are generally not from the poorer classes but rather from the “elites“. The problem is that they have the same mindset as missionaries to foreign lands. They always have the “answers” to what everyone else needs.
The very worst mistake is to assume that when a group is small in number (even though fervent) that it cannot topple a much larger force. The British learned this fact when they fought against the Colonials that eventually formed this country. They learned that same truth when they were forced to return India to its natives as well.
If you want to see the transportation infrastructure changed then rather than using “force” why not argue your ideas with greater skill than your opponents? Why must everything be about “forcing” people to accept your ideas? On what basis do you assume that your notions have greater merit?
We have grown used to loaded terms that describe the struggle to change infrastructure like “zero fatalities“. It is indeed an admirable aim but let us be honest in admitting that neither Copenhagen or Amsterdam has ever come close. Bicyclists as a rule have as much regard for pedestrians as they claim motorists to for them. The pecking order on our streets is established by who moves the fastest.
Lowering speed limits is something that can and should be done. But we need to have a debate about this and carefully planned “demonstrations” that these ideas work. By “demonstrations” I mean communities that take on the job of trying out something new and keeping careful tabs on the data. It is always best if the community is aligned with the aim.
When high schools want to put up lights in a community to hold night games or baseball teams like the Cubs want to do the same for their benefit it is always best when the community has a say in what happens. The same group of people in Chicago who want to see a “Fascist Approach” used to change to BRT or Protected Bike Lanes would have gone ballistic if the Mayor and Alderman had decided to simply force them to accept more parking across the street from the ball park without buy-in from the community. So why would these folks assume that using those tactics themselves is any more fair or palatable?
The “Golden Rule” is essentially why Democracies were invented. Otherwise it becomes a race to see who can amass the greater stockpiles of weapons and build a larger standing army. And of course we all know how well that worked during the Cold War.
A Good Idea Can Stand On Its Own Merits
I am a lifelong Democrat. But I for one want to see Bruce Rauner will the governorship of this state if it means that there might be a halt to this headlong plunge into Fascism. Sometimes a group might choose to do things I do not like. But it has never occurred to me that I should want to see everyone on the planet forced to refrain from eating meat. I would much rather have skilled surgeons and dietitians and physicians argue that the Plant-Based Diet is superior to eating meat. Why?
Well first off if you force someone to do something you have to maintain a standing army to keep them in line. Every single succeeding generation will always want to change things up a bit. That is likely to be true here as well. If tomorrow we could snap out fingers and have all streets adorned with “Protected Bike Lanes” in a few decades someone would decide that the ones built today were obsolete and want to force through something different. Something that today’s Urban Cyclists (then in their 60s) might not like or trust.
After all we have seen all sorts of perfectly good ideas abandoned. Public housing here in the City of Chicago used to all about building high rises. That idea fell flat after we realized the drawbacks. There are always unintended consequences to everything. So we need to proceed not by force but through shared commitment to change our communities.
Shopping malls were all the rage a few decades ago. Now many are dead or dying. We are on the verge of having automobiles that may change the landscape where traffic fatalities are concerned. These “smart cars” might be far more effective than “Protected Bike Lanes” and will gain traction because people welcome them. not because they were forced to accept them.
Anytime you have a notion that you are waging “war” on something you run the risk of having that campaign fail to solve the problems you were battling. Our “wars” on Poverty and Drugs have been dismal failures. Countless lives of people of color have been turned upside down because they were buying “joints” to smoke. Now we have the spectacle of states allowing the sale of “joints” for recreational use in stores. Why then did we ever decide to have a “war” on drugs?
I Distrust Fascists
Let me close by saying again that anyone who decides to “tell me what to do” rather than to convince me of the error of my ways is likely to have the same thing happen when Americans were “forced” to make alcohol illegal. There were very good reasons to have the public prevented from consuming alcohol, not the least of which was that drivers of cars were creating havoc on the roadways.
But today’s Urban Cyclists are among the more ardent lovers of alcohol. Why? Well probably because they like to get drunk from time to time and see no harm in it. But their grand parents and great grandparents saw this as a vice. And of course anytime you make something illegal it creates a market where profits are often inviting.
We are about to fight a battle here in this decade over who exactly can use these “Protected Bike Lanes“. And that will no doubt be something which will bring a great deal of focus on this problem of who gets to decide. It would be better to make changes to infrastructure on the basis of referendums. But that would mean having to actually convince the electorate of the validity of your argument. That would be the Democratic way.
Instead we are looking at using Fascistic means because we can. That to me means that sooner or later things will come undone and we will have to struggle all over again to establish a meaningful norm where transportation is concerned. The goal should not to turn every current thoroughfare into a pedestrian walkway. In fact neither should it be to make parking so scarce or expensive that people are forced to take Mass Transit.
People should want to take Mass Transit because it is more attractive and pleasurable than driving. Otherwise it will mean that where I can go and when is being determined by someone other than myself. If I wanted to live like that I could always move to the Soviet Union or Cuba and have every facet of my existence determined by the rulers of the state. I don’t want that any more than I want to see the Koch Brothers buy elections. There has to be some middle ground that rational people will agree works better than what we have just now.
Let’s Make This Easily Understood By Urban Cyclists
BikeShare is now an arm of the Mass Transit system. And as such it is likely to require in the not too distant future an infusion of cash to help meet operating costs that are not covered because there is a lack of participation in the system by everyone who could make it a part of their usual travel in the city. The tourist component is far too small to help with ongoing costs and besides it is a seasonal component at best. So what does one do if elected to run a great city and wishes to ensure that even its BikeShare is financially viable?
Using the Fascist model (which is what you think should be applied to automobile usage) you first determine that you need to discourage personal bike usage inside the city limits. Why?
Well there are essentially two things you want to accomplish. The first is that you need a very large and very steady annual membership component to the operating revenue stream. You achieve that by making people who would prefer not to take traditional Mass Transit (i.e. buses and elevated trains) instead use BikeShare.
In addition to making them uncomfortable on personal bikes you also achieve a bit of good will from cyclists by extending to those with annual contracts tax incentives. This helps soften the blow.
But the second bit of reasoning you use is that parking lots are ugly and a bad use of public space. Take for instance the Bicycle Apple. That piece of public space development in Holland is (depending on your view) an eyesore (despite the clever design) and entirely unnecessary. Why?
Because the parking issue is resolved already by BikeShare. Users of that system get to dock their bikes at very convenient locations right outside their places of employment rather than having to walk a half mile to reach these cleverly designed public structure for mass bike parking. Besides you also save the taxpayers a good deal of money by reducing the costs associated with the recovery of stolen bicycles. Every time an officer has to waste time on something as petty as retrieving a stolen bike means that he cannot be fighting violent crime. It’s a no-brainer.
Is That Shoe Too Tight For You?
Some of you are probably shaking your heads saying this could never happen. Who would be so stupid as to try and conduct on “war” on private bicycle usage in the city limits? Time will tell if this happens. Keep in mind that as your dreams of a less car-centric society develop there will be the need for revenue streams to replace that provide by the Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax.
Even if lots of folks purchase electric cars and pay a tax for the re-charging of those vehicles, it will still not be enough to overcome the move to BikeShare and Mass Transit that you dream about. The poor will suddenly be faced with rising costs in ticket prices and everyone will be mindful that despite the reduction in personal car traffic into and out of the city the roads themselves must still be maintained for trucks and other working vehicles that replenish food and goods stocks as well as the streets along which emergency vehicles like fire, rescue and police must travel.
Living here in an area that is fraught with freezes and thaws means that potholes will always be with us. And of course there are the bridges and overpasses that must be maintained despite the lack of a good revenue stream from fuel. Taxes of some sort will have to be raised from somewhere. Were I a betting man I would guess that the prices for every single Mass Transit ticket would sky-rocket. And that would of course include BikeShare.
Now some would suggest that people would simply walk rather than pay these higher prices. And that is indeed likely. New Yorkers made the wearing of running shoes a part of the daily dress code during the strikes of their Mass Transit system a few decades ago. But if that happens it will still mean that monies have to come from somewhere. The usual sources are either income or property taxes. But it is also possible that usage taxes will be devised to help.
Current trends indicate that towns are considering road usage tolls to support travel through their city limits. Large cities will eventually be considering the same things. This is a Libertarian’s “wet dream“.